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The dandelion principle
Print – Issue 164 | Article of the Week

In recent years, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis has increased significantly. Existing studies show that for these individuals with specific life skills challenges, the process of finding and keeping meaningful employment can present significant difficulties.


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In recent years, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis has increased significantly. Existing studies show that for these individuals with specific life skills challenges, the process of finding and keeping meaningful employment can present significant difficulties. There are estimated to be half a million people on the Autism spectrum in the UK – even this might be an underestimation – of these, over 85 percent are believed to be unemployed or severely under-employed.

Article by Ian Iceton, Managing Director – Talent, Performance & Reward (Group HR Director) River and Mercantile Group

In 2016 The National Autistic Society launched their Autism Employment Gap campaign, based on research from 2000 autistic adults, showing that 40 percent had never worked; whilst 35 percent said that the support or adjustments made by their employer were poor or very poor. Finding ways to reduce this lost opportunity has huge potential economic value. As part of the Government’s drive to add one million more disabled people into the workforce over the next ten years they have specifically targeted adults with ASD, in fact their numbers require the amount of people with ASD in the UK workforce to double over that time, to hit their overall target. It is also a moral imperative, and a challenge to the way we think, especially as many with ASD would not see themselves as being disabled, but rather just being different, and that many of the issues in the workplace come from the lack of skills in certain areas of their “neuro-typical” manager.

In addition, given the high level of later-in-life diagnosis, many organisations probably have people in their business who have ASD, but who may not have disclosed it to their boss. This brings many challenges with it.

“We must not stereotype, as the phrase goes, “if you have met one Autistic employee, you have met one Autistic employee” each will be different, with their own interests, skills and capabilities”

As a HR Director myself I have sat in Disciplinary Final Appeal meetings where employees were about to be dismissed for behaviours considered gross misconduct when it actually became clear that they were on the spectrum, and were just being themselves. A YouGov survey of businesses of all sizes showed that 60 percent of employers worry about getting support for autistic employees wrong; whilst a similar number also said they did not know where to go for support and advice about employing adults with ASD. At the same time, evidence from the Autism Employment Gap report showed that over 50 percent of autistic people said that the support, understanding or acceptance from an employer would be the single biggest thing that could help them into employment, however, roughly half reported bullying or harassment in the workplace, or other discrimination or unfair treatment due to their autism. At the same time, organisations are potentially missing out on a significant cohort of talent because traditional recruitment techniques, and job requirements that unnecessarily demand inter-personal skills, actually discriminate against adults with ASD. Whilst it is a spectrum condition, with a wide range of challenges, it is known that many with ASD find the interview process very difficult to navigate, and it does not show their true potential. For them the journey to an interview can be a significant stress; followed by answering questions that might have multiple parts, or require significant interpretation, all of which can mean they do not adequately reflect their capabilities in a traditional interview. This is a challenge for HR functions, and questions existing diversity policies, which are typically too narrowly defined to assist adults with ASD. Recently some enlightened organisations have started to change their HR Processes in order to access this “neurodiverse” talent. These process changes started in Silicon Valley companies in the US, but there are now pockets of good practice in the UK too, including Proctor & Gamble, and Deutsche Bank, both of whom have Autism friendly internship programmes. Often this involves ditching the traditional on-line screening processes; sending interview questions to the candidates in advance; or even replacing the interview entirely with an in-work assessment process over one or more days.

“We must not stereotype, as the phrase goes, “if you have met one Autistic employee, you have met one Autistic employee” each will be different, with their own interests, skills and capabilities”

In the IT world an autism cybergroup has been set up to support Autism in that specific industry. In my previous employer, Network Rail, who have a very inclusive approach to D&I, have set up a Neurodiversity working group, to consider all aspects of this challenge, involving the Trades Unions, line managers, HR and existing Autistic employees – they are even looking at changing their specific recruitment process for some jobs that would seem to lend themselves to an Autistic employee. At the same time, we must not stereotype, as the phrase goes, “if you have met one Autistic employee, you have met one Autistic employee” each will be different, with their own interests, skills and capabilities. Being inclusive of neurodiversity is certainly not just for IT, cyber security or the financial world. Austin & Sonne (2014) describe the “Dandelion Principle” approach where organisations can alter their whole, traditional, HR approach to work design, recruitment and training in order to better accommodate those on the Autism spectrum. This asks firms to consider how do we get the best out of each employee or applicant, rather than how do we fit them neatly into an existing pre-determined job description or role profile? This requires a significant mindset change amongst HR and leaders of businesses generally, but the change is worth the effort. This represents a much more inclusive approach, with the likelihood of significantly increasing the chances of recruiting not just those talented individuals who have ASD, but actually is more likely to allow people with other hidden differences to thrive.

The challenges do not end with just adapting recruitment to make your organisation more inclusive to Autistic applicants, and anybody that might be different, either neurodiverse, or something else. Once in work, how this cohort are managed and supported is also crucial. Evidence suggests that adults with Autism are more likely to leave jobs sooner because they are under-supported, or remain in jobs below their education and skill level longer, because they do not receive the same treatment as others. Some organisations, such as Auticon, have set up a commercial business to try and help businesses breach this gap, with an offer that includes the provision of Business coaches for the autistic employee. It is worth noting, however, that many Adults with ASD have sensory difficulties in a normal workplace – resulting from hyper sensitivity to sound, light, smells or touch. A really good employer needs to consider these factors to assist their autistic employees, and don’t forget – you might have people who are on the spectrum, but who have not got an official diagnosis, or at least not declared it, so how will you approach requests for workplace adaptions from any member of staff? How will managers be encouraged to be supportive and understanding? In my own work at Cranfield University undertaking a doctorate (DBA) in Autism in the workplace I have been looking at all the evidence available, not just about Autism specifically, but from all aspects of diversity, and the evidence shows that when organisations are challenged to think differently, and adjust their policies and processes to include people with different characteristics and requirements, it brings initial difficulties, as the status quo is disturbed, but that the opportunities are always there for organisations to benefit from the changes. What is also clear, however, is that formal research into Autism to date has focused primarily on children, their diagnoses, and their education, and not on their specific workplace requirements – which is a gap I am planning to fill. It is also clear that the voice of the Autistic community itself has traditionally been absent from these debates, given how few Adults with ASD are in the workplace, and clearly this needs to be corrected.

In a world that is becoming more complex, requiring ever greater agility and creative thinking, who wouldn’t want to benefit from some more different perspectives, and capabilities? Furthermore, all the evidence from those organisations that have started to make this mindset change, is that not only do they achieve a greater level of diversity in the business, bringing creativity and new perspectives, but that in forcing themselves to think differently and more inclusively for Autistic people line managers actually improve their skills in managing all their people, so everyone benefits. And one final thought, if you still need any persuading, the most recent evidence suggests that the proportion of women who are autistic may be significantly higher than traditionally believed (usually quoted as only 20 percent) – if the recent figure of 50 percent is more accurate, and why should that be a surprise, then we may all have in our businesses females who are typically better at masking their differences, but are using some of their emotional energy in doing so, and not able to give of their best because of it. So could part of the answer to one key Diversity question – “why don’t we have more senior women in our business”, actually be wrapped up with the fact that some of them are autistic, and we are not providing the necessary support for that element of their needs? So how inclusive is your business, really? And what more could you do to be truly open to all?

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